Looking to the World to Come
Hence in today's Gospel, the Lord says twice: "They do not belong to the world anymore than I belong to the world..." (Jn 17: 14, 16); rather we belong in heaven with Christ who has gone before us to prepare a place for us. Because we are not of the world but are merely in the world, Jesus warns us that the world would hate us (cf Jn 15:18-20; 17:14). What is this 'world' that hated and persecuted our Lord and which hates his true disciples too? Fr Herbert McCabe OP says:
"Jesus goes to the extremes that he does because of the human world to which he has been sent, the less than human world to which he belongs, the only human world there is. It is because this human world is one of sin (not just a world with sins in it). It is a world maladjusted to the very purpose and point of being human"
Signs of the world's hatred for the Church and the Word she proclaims are legion. Recent events covered on the blogosphere which come to mind are the lies of The Da Vinci Code and the recent incident in the USA involving Ben Kessler. But in addition to this there are the many forms of injustice and opposition to the Church's social and pro-life teaching that indicate the world's hatred.
As Pope John Paul II said, the Church stands as a "sign of contradiction" before the world because:
"The Gospel of Christ constantly renews the life and culture of fallen man, it combats and removes the errors and evils resulting from the permanent allurement of sin. It never eases to purify and elevate the morality of peoples"
This tension between the world and its' sin and the Church and her eternal Gospel of truth, goodness and holiness is always with us, this "maladjustment" to true humanity is the magnification of the struggle of the human heart that St Paul describes so well in Romans 7:14-25. This conflict that rages in the human heart is why there is such resistance to divine truth; and this inner conflict is manifest as opposition to the Church who preaches, teaches and shows forth the truth of the Gospel.
"Every Christian is bound to confront his own convictions continually with the teachings of the Gospel and of the Church's Tradition in the effort to remain faithful to the word of Christ, even when it is demanding and, humanly speaking, hard to understand. We must not yield to the temptation of relativism or of a subjectivist and selective interpretation of sacred Scripture. Only the whole truth can open us to adherence to Christ, dead and risen for our salvation."
The very idea of being consecrated in the truth means that we are set apart for Christ. What are we set apart from? The world and its lies, illusions and empty promises. Indeed, the word 'ekklesia', which is used to name and describe the Church, is related to the earlier Jewish word, 'qahal', which means "to be called out". Hence, the etymology of the word 'Church' can convey the idea that we are called out of darkness, sin, the world to become the People of God (cf 1 Pet 2:9).
But this does not mean that the Church is called out of the world such that she is an entirely spiritual entity. Afterall, she is also a visible institution. So, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn OP explains:
"The kingdom of God is 'eschatalogical'. It belongs to the end time, yet the end time has already begun in Christ. His kingdom is not of this world, but it comes into this world. For where men become his disciples, they form not a group thrown together by chance but a structured fellowship that is constituted in a visible manner and displays in its fundamental structure an organic continuity with its origin. The Church's fellowship is neither a merely a secular religious grouping nor a purely spiritual community: it is neither an exclusively visible Church or an exclusively invisible Church. It is both at one and the same time, and in an inseparable fashion, earthly and heavenly Church, a structured society and a spiritual fellowship."
Hence, the Lord goes on to say in today's Gospel: "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one" (Jn 17:15). Truly, we cannot be taken out of the world; we live in it! Hence Yves Congar OP observed: "The world of tangible things is our assigned setting in which we live out our lives...", our lives of fidelity to the demands of the Gospel. Moreover, as the Council Fathers at Vatican II taught:
"While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God's kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass. For every benefit which the People of God during its earthly pilgrimage can offer to the human family stems from the fact that the Church is 'the universal sacrament of salvation', simultaneously manifesting and arising the mystery of God's love... Christians, on pilgrimage toward the heavenly city, should seek and think of these things which are above. This duty in no way decreases, rather it increases, the importance of their obligation to work with all men in the building of a more human world."
Therefore, we exist in this world as its leaven, to be salt and light to the world; to fill it with the love of Christ, the truth that the Holy Spirit teaches us and to give the world hope in the promises of Christ, so as make the world more fully and authentically human and to advance all of mankind on the way to the Trinitarian life. Thus, the Church enhances and promotes true humanity and is the friend of humanity, contrary to the ideas the world has about the Church and the Christian faith.
It is also important to affirm that our disconnectedness from the world does not mean that the world, human culture and society is evil per se: that Manichean tendency is a real danger and temptation and it must be roundly rejected and resisted. What Christians reject is the glamour of evil, its falsehood and Satan's vain promises (cf Renewal of Baptismal Vows) which is found in the world. However, the world itself - as God created it and intended it - is fundamentally good. Therefore, Cardinal Schonborn summarises and paraphrases Gaudium et spes in saying that society (and the 'city of mankind'):
"In itself is good and possesses its relative autonomy, its own positive values, and its own finality: the 'common good' (bonum commune). Culture, science, economics, and politics have their positive values, which cannot simply be identified with man's ultimate goal, which can only be God... the kingdom of God, the 'civitas Dei', is this ultimate goal, which is already present in the Church and is to penetrate and reshape all temporal values, without calling their autonomy into question."
"For the Christian, heaven is already on earth, in a certain sense. For where he attempts in this time, with all its provisional character, to create space for love, to lend a voice to justice, to live peace, there - even in the midst of great deficiencies and miseries - something of heaven can already be sensed on earth... the Christian knows that the decisive struggle is not a 'class struggle' or a 'struggle for existence' but the continuous struggle against the power of evil, against the forces of pride, of arrogance, of hatred..."
Let us invoke the Spirit into our lives and be formed by His Love.
The images above show a Romanesque relief of the Ascension from the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos; the Holy Father in Warsaw and a stained glass window of Christ enthroned in heaven from Willingham Parish Church.